Critique of the Criminal Justice System, Bibi June Schwithal
Stewed Rhubarb Press, 2020 £5.99
Heavy or not, he’s my brother
The scholarly-sounding title of this pamphlet made me wonder what sort of poetry it might contain. When I looked inside, I found the poems themselves had similarly formal titles: ‘Ironic Process Theory’, ‘The Manifestation of Early-Onset Survivor Guilt’, ‘The Principles of Transformative Justice’. But, in fact, these poems are anything but dry.
Bibi June Schwithal is a non-binary poet, originally from Amsterdam. They wrote these poems in response to their brother’s imprisonment, and the pamphlet is dedicated to him. The poems make a powerful plea for the abolition of prisons, but also explore the poet’s relationship with their brother. Despite shared parentage and early schooling, their respective lives went in very different directions, as the title poem explains:
i got an education
and you served a sentence
i write poetry about the nuances
of class and gender
speak fluent revolution
with my free mouth
while you keep your head down
and pay the price
The 1969 Hollies’ hit, ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’, came into my mind as I read the poems. The lyrics of that song have always made me feel vaguely guilty — a recognition, I suspect, that my willingness to support friends and siblings through their most challenging times has often fallen well short. Several poems in the pamphlet acknowledge such discomfort:
I am in London,
I stumble over questions like
‘Do you have family here?’
I’m just a tourist, here.
He’s a prisoner.
I do not go to visit him.
The poems are ruthless in their self-questioning. In ‘Eyewitness’, for example, we hear two voices. The poem describes childhood memories, but after each recollection, a second voice interrupts to question its accuracy: ‘Are you sure that’s how it happened?’ ‘Are you absolutely certain?’
In the final poem, ‘Footnotes’, the poet admits:
of my friends don’t know your name. What does that say
about us, and about shame?
These are political poems certainly, but deeply personal. They are written out of love and ring absolutely true.